More than 40 Whacks

The real story of Lizzie Borden


“I thumb through the weathered copy of my Bible, reinforcing the tenets of my faith — and how I am failing it. But as a child repeatedly reminded of her inadequacy, her dirtiness and worthlessness, I’ll never shed these feelings of guilt and shame, not even if I confessed every last sin.”


We’ve all heard the sensational story of the woman who supposedly killed her parents with an ax. We can probably all sing the schoolyard song and remember Elizabeth Montgomery in the 1975 movie. But does anyone know what life was like in the Borden household? And if Lizzie did it, what could have led to such a horrific crime?

In her YA novel Lizzie, author Dawn Ius cleverly reimagines the tale with Lizzie Borden as a modern 17-year-old girl plagued by physical abuse, health issues, and a gaping lack of self-esteem.

Lizzie suffers from postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, causing her to black out the instant her menstrual blood flows; she has no memory of what happens after. These episodes become more unpredictable as Lizzie gets older, and so do the odd occurrences that happen during the blackouts.

Lizzie has tried her best to be a girl her parents can be proud of. And her joy of cooking impresses everyone who tastes her dishes, especially her signature meatloaf. But since Lizzie’s mother died and her father remarried a woman named Abigail, her life has been a nightmare.

“I used to be the good girl. Obedient. [Then] the trifecta of trauma blew through my life — my irregular menstrual cycles, Mom’s cancer, Abigail’s grand entrance into our lives — and something inside of me just…snapped.”

Abigail has no desire to be a mother, and Lizzie’s father administers violent discipline for Lizzie’s faults. He is an “effective warden” who keeps Lizzie in the prison that is her reality.

“My father pantomimes the American dream — success, wealth, the illusion of a wife and two daughters who worship him…But my adoration snapped the first time the flat of his hand connected with my cheek.”

Lizzie has always found refuge in the Catholic Church — teaching Sunday school, coordinating church events, and chairing the bake sale. It is the one place she feels safe. But she lets us in on a secret:

“My halo is not without tarnish, my service to God not selfless. Being at the church allows me untethered freedom from the stifling rule of my father’s iron fist.”

Lizzie admits that sometimes she does strange things, the images lingering at the fringes of her memory. She knows she has darkness inside her and tries to "swipe away" her hallucinations. Her stepmother insists that Lizzie is a psychopath and should be committed to a psychiatric hospital. The threat hovers over Lizzie every hour of every day.

Lizzie dreams of finding love, being free, and training to become a chef, in that order. But her father and Abigail constantly remind her she will never able to leave their bed-and-breakfast, where she cooks and cleans for them. She is too damaged, too unwell. Unlike her sister, Emma, who left home for college, Lizzie can never have a life of her own.

They’ve almost convinced her she won’t be able to make it in the world on her own.

Almost.

Lizzie’s life changes when the new maid, Bridget Sullivan, arrives. Bridget accepts Lizzie unconditionally, even with the bruises covering her face and the thin lines carved into her inner thighs. Bridget is the ray of sunshine and thread of hope she’s craved for years.

Lizzie now relies on Bridget for comfort and courage. She is a breath of fresh air and promise of a better tomorrow. Maybe Lizzie can become the person she’s always dreamed of.

Then the blackouts come and ruin everything.

In Lizzie, Ius gives us another version of the Lizzie Borden story to consider. If the girl killed her parents, was a damaged life to blame?

Here, the author explains how the story evolved.

What led you to write about Lizzie Borden?

I’m fascinated by true crime and history, so putting them together seemed like a great idea, especially with a historic murder that continues to stick in people’s minds. But to challenge myself, I modernized the story, as I did with my first book, Anne & Henry. I love sifting through research and trying to figure out the modern-day parallels.

Why did you make Lizzie a 17-year-old girl at the time of the murders?

Mostly for practical reasons, to be honest. I wanted Lizzie to be a young-adult novel, and the protagonist had to be a teen for that to work. But a lot of the issues facing Lizzie Borden back then are more relevant to today’s teens — I can’t comment on her guilt, but I do believe she was being physically and emotionally abused by her father, and I do think she was a lesbian. There’s a greater awareness about abuse and a greater acceptance about LGBT issues today that present options Lizzie wouldn’t have had in 1892.

Are Lizzie’s menstrual-cycle blackouts in the book based on a real condition?

Yes! I dug deep into the research to find that nugget. She wasn’t diagnosed as having premenstrual dysphoric condition in real life, but once I discovered she had frequent blackouts as part of her menstrual cycle, I went with it — and added in a bit of creative license.

Is there a particular mental illness that Lizzie might have had that would explain her “madness”?

My sister is a forensic psychologist, and we talked about several mental illnesses that could have explained her madness — from PTSD, because of her abuse, to schizophrenia. There are symptoms to support a number of different conditions, but in my Lizzie’s case, I think a lot of it resulted from PTSD.

Why did you focus on the guilt Lizzie felt over her devotion to the Catholic Church?

The real Lizzie Borden was very religious, and her devotion to the church was one reason the jury didn’t believe she could have committed such horrendous crimes. She volunteered at the church, she taught Sunday school, and she never missed a service. On the surface, it seemed like the Bordens were a tight-knit, devoted family, but it was a façade. Lizzie’s devotion to the church at the beginning of my novel creates another source of conflict for her when things had started to change in her world — her sister had gone off to college, Bridget came to town, her father’s abuse continued to escalate. Her faith shifted from believing in the church to believing in Bridget.

What inspired you to create the love affair between Lizzie and Bridget?

It didn’t start out that way! In real life, Bridget was an integral family member and briefly became a suspect in the murders. When she arrives at the Borden B&B, I intended for Lizzie and Bridget to become fast friends. I just loved Bridget’s enthusiasm, her love of “Star Wars” (I mean, who can resist a girl who can quote Han Solo lines?), and how she tried to bring out the best in Lizzie. I started to fall for her and knew Lizzie would, too.

Although Lizzie and the real-life Bridget Sullivan never dated, Lizzie had relationships with women after she was acquitted — it seemed a logical pairing. With all the darkness in her life, I wanted to give her a “light,” and Bridget beams like the sun’s rays. Their love grew organically in my mind.

Is there a message you want readers to take away from the novel?

I didn’t set out to write a theme — I was drawn to the Lizzie Borden story and wanted a fresh angle, so I hope it entertains. But I suppose there are some underlying themes about loving who we want, and about how abuse happens more than we suspect. We never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life.

Are there any other interesting details about the book, your writing process, and your research you’d like to share?

I was a reporter fresh out of high school and interning at a national newspaper at the time of the Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman murders. My mouth gaped as I watched the news report on television — the police chasing O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco. I thought with absolute clarity: He’s innocent. It wasn’t until years later — maybe not even until having seen Ryan Murphy’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson” anthology series, that I realized how naïve I’d been. The evidence against him was so insurmountable…

It’s the question I get asked the most: "Do you think Lizzie did it?”

When I started researching for Lizzie, I was convinced I’d find the evidence to prove to myself, without any doubt, that she was guilty of murdering her father and stepmother. I scoured newspaper articles and books and web posts — and it surprised me that I didn’t find enough evidence to prove her guilt.

Although we will never know for sure, my research tells me this: Although I would never condone murder, if Lizzie killed her father, I can understand why she was driven to it. Her father was a terrible man.

What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?

I have so many projects in the works: A young-adult novel about child brides that is dark and controversial, and one of the most challenging things I have ever written; a thriller ready to go on submission that is exciting and chilling, and I hope will be my foray into the genre of my heart; and — shhh, don’t tell my agent — the book of my heart…details as soon as I can share. I'm also having fun writing for two TV shows.

And, just for fun, what is something about yourself your fans don’t already know? 

I have an unnatural obsession with muscle cars. My family refuses to go to car shows with me because I can rattle off useless statistics about the old classics. I love them all, and yet my favorite is a bit of a cliché — the 1967 Shelby GT 500, aka Eleanor from the cheesy and yet awesome movie “Gone in 60 Seconds.” That car — along with a dozen other muscle cars — is in my YA heist novel, Overdrive. Just this morning (for real), my friend sent me a link to a Kijiji ad for a 67 Shelby GT 350, and I wondered how much of my house I could sell to buy it without my husband divorcing me. In the end, I decided to hold out for a 500…

*****

In Lizzie, Dawn Ius immerses readers in Lizzie Borden’s damaged family and her mental instability. We empathize with the young girl who yearns for love, hopes to be free, and dreams of a better life. Lizzie's story compels us to consider the questions: How much does childhood trauma derail a young person's development, and how would a young life flourish if she were empowered to live and love for herself?

For a riveting new take on an electrifying story from the past, read Lizzie.

K.L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing safely in the middle. She is passionate about women’s issues, loves noisy clocks and fuzzy blankets, and HATES the word normal. Find her on Twitter at @klromo.

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